Monday, December 04, 2006

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird, no a plane, oh wait, it's just an animator.

Greetings from super secret animation headquarters, here in Bristol UK. My name is Teresa Drilling, and I will be your key animator for today. Join me as I take you on an animator’s behind the scenes tour of “Creature Comforts” (USA). Be advised that perspectives may seem temporarily skewed as we enter the realm of smoke and mirrors. Please keep hands and feet inside the safety zone as we step together behind the green curtain to see what we can see.

Mind the gap, it’s dark in here…

Well, let’s see if I can live up to that intro.

I’m an American animator working here on “Creature Comforts.”
Strangely, despite my nationality, I’m not just another exotic import (British readers can snicker here…). I’m also a seasoned Aardanimator. I was first assimilated into the Aardhive seven years ago on “Chicken Run,” then again for “Curse of the Wererabbit.” I’ve split my time between here and Portland OR during these years, which can have some curious side effects. Like thinking once that marmite might be good in tacos. And then actually enjoying marmite in tacos.

I’ve been working nearly six months now animating some great pig characters. The pigs actually made it home before I did, as the show’s first Thanksgivings Day promo. That’s the usual way we animators start conversations with each other here, talking about our characters. “How are the polar bears going?,” “Still on the gerbil?,” “Are you moving onto the raccoon next?” It’s more normal to start conversations here in Britain with some comment or other about the weather, but we don’t see much weather deep inside the studio, and besides, we’re busy being immersed in other worlds.

This immersion trick is actually quite handy. I’m not going to go so far as to say necessary, as I forgot to poll everyone about that today. But it is necessary for me, and I suspect it is for a good number of the other animators as well. You see while stop-motion/stop-frame/model animation (which is the animation form being used for this series) is often described from a technical angle or featured as an idiosyncratic obsession for the daft, what it really is, at its very heart, is a form of acting. “Animation” is a word derived from the Latin word for soul. One doesn’t make a character come alive by merely moving the puppet around and filming it. An animator immerses their imagination into the scene, and thinks about how a character needs to appear to feel, to think, to react. Otherwise the result can look kinda flat. Working through a shot without engaging can get torturously tedious for me too, just as it would for anyone. I don’t think I have any vast wells of patience to draw upon to do this kind of work, just a lucky knack for focusing my attention with an open heart, and a good sense of timing.

Okay, up for a breath of air!

Let me describe for you the environment we work in. We work in a regular building in a regular industrial park setting, or as they say here, an industrial estate (a super secret industrial estate). There are offices for directors, producers, designers, and administrators, a canteen (cafeteria) that serves fantastic food, telephones, water coolers, the usual. There are also workshops for woodworking, for metalworking, for set building, for scenic painting, for modelmaking… reasonable to expect from custom design and manufacture companies. There’s also an editing facility that keeps track of everything that needs to be shot and shifted and sent out into the world, not unlike Wonka Bars. Finally there are the stages. A normal day can find me in any one of the other areas, but by far the greatest chunk of my day is spent out in the stages.

The stages are vast open areas in the middle of the building. They are entirely separated from the rest of the building by fire doors. They have no windows, no skylights. I have seen the overhead lights turned on only three times in the last seven years. Here is a little factoid that very few people here know… there used to be a window that overlooked the stage floor from the canteen. I haven’t seen it open since 1998.

When you walk out onto the stage floor your eyes adjust to the lower light level. Each separate shooting space, or “unit” has its own specialized lighting, and it is important that the lighting from one unit doesn’t interfere with the lighting of another, so light outside the units is kept to a minimum to prevent “light spillage.” Isn’t this a great business, to be able to think of light as a flowing, malleable thing? The floors are smooth concrete and very solid so there is no bounce or jiggle in the floor, which is very important in animation. They are also easy to clean and move heavy equipment and set pieces over.

Inside this vast space you see that there are tall, moveable wooden “flats” lined up to make walls and avenues inside. It’s like a giant rat maze. The flats can be moved around to form little rooms, or “units” inside which a scene is set up, lit, and installed with an animator. On the feature films, these walls were often moved around to make bigger and smaller units throughout the project. It really was like a rat maze then, because the “hallways” you were used to traveling through for months would suddenly disappear, and new ones would appear, and you’d have to find another way to get a drink of water.

Over the years I have animated in nearly every possible spot in Stage 1. It’s a funny thing to walk into a new unit and remember that you were in the same place before, only then it was a dining room, and before that it was a moonlit road. And because of the immersion thing, these other worlds seemed very complete and real, but are now in some other parallel universe. Even though I’m spending a good chunk of my life in the same big, dark room, a room that I know intimately from one end to the other, it’s still a new and interesting space every time (I did warn you about the smoke and mirrors aspect of this tour).

The second thing you notice is the smell of plasticene (the modeling clay we sculpt and animate). It’s a smell that always makes me feel like I’m coming home. I’ve spent many other years in another large studio on vast stages, and there too there was the smell of plasticene in the air. It was a different kind of plasticene, and so a different smell, but the same warm and fuzzy feeling.

The third thing you notice is the buzz. There are people moving quickly through the maze, with light stands, clipboards, eyeballs and fish lips, tea and toast. You can hear the low hum of conversations, the somewhat louder hum of vacuum cleaners, the percussive bursts of dialog being previewed in the units, the crackle of walkie talkies, and almost always, somewhere, a laugh. It’s really nice working in a place where people laugh.

As I said earlier, I’m working with the pigs. In fact, I’ve been working with the pigs from the very beginning. There are a lot of pig shots. They’re great characters. I’m in lucky unit 13, which happens to be in the geographical middle of Stage 1, so I get to experience a lot of what criss-crosses across the floor, albeit through the walls of my unit! Here’s a super secret picture of me working on the pigs.

If you wish to see what more of me looks like, check out the Aardman 30th Anniversary Party pictures from October. I’m the Spotted Snow Leopard standing next to the Peacock.

Well! There you go, a first peek at the men and women behind the green curtain. Actually, we use black curtains, but you get the idea. Please be sure to return your badges at the front desk, spare us a kind thought, and don’t forget to pick up a marmite taco or two on your way home tonight. Cheers!


EditorPenguin said...

What a great post! It made me feel like I was right there at Aardman HQ. Say hi to the pigs for me!

Chawunky said...

Man, I went looking for info on Aardman and came up with far more than I expected! Nice little blog here.

Anonymous said...

So when do we really get to see your pigs?